Vaclav Havel: remembering the Czech president, playwright, and peacenik
Vaclav Havel went from being a playwright to a symbol of the new Czech state and democracy in Eastern Europe. Along the way he became Czech's first democratically elected president, nominee and winner of prestigious peace prizes, and one of the world's preeminent anti-communist revolutionaries.
Vaclav Havel wove theater into revolution, leading the charge to peacefully bring down communism in a regime he ridiculed as "Absurdistan" and proving the power of the people to overcome totalitarian rule.Skip to next paragraph
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Shy and bookish, with a wispy mustache and unkempt hair, the dissident playwright was an unlikely hero of Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Revolution" after four decades of suffocating repression — and of the epic struggle that ended the wider Cold War.
He was his country's first democratically elected president, leading it through the early challenges of democracy and its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though his image suffered as his people discovered the difficulties of transforming their society.
A former chain-smoker who had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in communist jails, Havel died Sunday morning at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic, his assistant Sabina Tancevova said. His wife Dagmar and a nun who had been caring for him the last few months of his life were by his side, she said. He was 75.
"A great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy has died," said Lech Walesa, his fellow anti-communist activist who founded neighboring Poland's Solidarity movement. "His outstanding voice of wisdom will be missed."
Among his many honors were Sweden's prestigious Olof Palme Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award, bestowed on him by President George W. Bush for being "one of liberty's great heroes."
An avowed peacenik whose heroes included rockers such as Frank Zappa, he never quite shed his flower-child past and often signed his name with a small heart as a flourish.
"Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred," Havel famously said. It became his revolutionary motto which he said he always strove to live by.
"It's interesting that I had an adventurous life, even though I am not an adventurer by nature. It was fate and history that caused my life to be adventurous rather than me as someone who seeks adventure," he once told Czech radio, in a typically modest comment.
Havel first made a name for himself after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberally minded communists in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Havel's plays were banned as hard-liners installed by Moscow snuffed out every whiff of rebellion. But he continued to write, producing a series of underground essays that stand with the work of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as the most incisive and eloquent analyses of what communism did to society and the individual.
One of his best-known essays, "The Power and the Powerless" written in 1978, borrowed slyly from the immortal opening line of the mid-19th century Communist Manifesto, writing: "A specter is haunting eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called 'dissent.'"